The Northwestern Wildcats (4-2, 1-1) defeated Miami (Ohio) (0-6) by a final score of 16-6, thanks to a dominating defense that racked up four turnovers and two rushing touchdowns from QB Mike Kafka.
After a Stefan Demos field goal on the Wildcats' first drive, Kafka punched it in with time winding down in the first quarter to take an early 10-0 lead. But then the defenses both buckled down and there was no scoring for two quarters, with Kafka running it in again near the end of the third quarter.
The Wildcat defense racked up a season single-game high of seven sacks, with LB Quentin Davie accounting for two (along with another tackle for loss and two forced fumbles). One of those fumbles was picked up by S Brian Peters and returned 27 yards, which led to a Northwestern touchdown.
The Cats continued their ball-hawking ways with three interceptions, one each by Peters, LB Nate Williams, and CB Sherrick McManis, who had his third in as many games. NU totaled four takeaways on the day, bringing their two game total to 10 after racking up six last week at Purdue.
Although the offense sputtered most of the day, thanks to a generally poor performance running the ball, Kafka did a good job of moving the ball well enough to lead Northwestern to victory. Kafka had 53 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground along with 191 passing yards; his 244 yards of total offense accounted for 76 percent of NU's offense on the day.
Miami tried to make it interesting late, scoring a touchdown with just over one minute left in the game, but failed to score on the two point conversion attempt, essentially ending the game. The ensuing onside kick was recovered by NU and the Cats were able to run out the clock.
That Miami touchdown broke a five quarter scoreless streak for the NU defense, with the Cats not allowing a point between an early second quarter TD last week by Purdue and the late Miami touchdown. The total span of the shutout lasted over 100 minutes of game time.
The win gave NU a 3-1 mark against nonconference competition in 2009 (the Cats have posted .500 or better regular season nonconference records in 17 of the last 18 seasons), and the Wildcats will attempt to ride their current two game winning streak into the second half of the season which kicks off next week at Michigan State.
Player of the Game
LB Quentin Davie (7 tackles, 3 TFLs, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) Davie was very active on defense for the Wildcats, racking up three tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including two QB sacks. His two forced fumbles also helped the Cats, with one turning into a long fumble return that set up a TD drive.
On a day when defense ruled, Davie was a key playmaker for the Wildcats.
Northwestern Honorable Mentions
QB Mike Kafka (15-of-31 passing for 191 yards and 1 interception, 15 carries for 53 yards and 2 TDs) As mentioned earlier, Kafka accounted for over three fourths of NU's total offense on the day, and despite completing less than half of his passes and leading a generally underwhelming offensive performance, he scored just enough to lead the Cats to victory.
He was especially effective on the ground, rushing for 66 yards on 13 carries subtracting sacks (over 5 yards per carry). Thankfully the defense bailed NU out in the offense's worst showing of the season.
S Brian Peters (8 tackles, 1 fumble recovery for 27 yards, 1 interception for 8 yards) After starting S Brendan Smith came out early in the game with a hand injury, Peters stepped in and did a nice job on the day, grabbing two turnovers and making eight tackles.
CB Sherrick McManis (3 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception, 2 pass break-ups) Once again, McManis provided lockdown corner coverage, including an excellent interception on a long throw from Miami's quarterback.
He's had an interception in each of the last three games and is a valuable asset to the NU defense (especially evident in NU's losses to Eastern Michigan and Syracuse).
What to Work on
Running Game: The Wildcats managed just 128 yards on the ground, with 53 of those accounted for by QB Mike Kafka. And they were facing one of the nation's worst run defenses, who was ranked 95th nationally going into the game.
The NU running backs managed just 3.1 yards per carry, which was obviously not enough to keep the chains moving.
Third Down Conversions: After starting the season at an extremely high clip by converting upwards of 60 percent of their third downs, the NU offense has fallen hard, converting just 33 percent on the day against a defense that was allowing a 48 percent conversion rate on defense.
Much of that can be blamed on third-and-long situations that NU faced all day long, with many of those caused by poor rushing performances on first and second down.
Third and Long: In fact, NU faced third-and-long (five yards or more to gain) nine times in the game and converted for a first down on just three of those occasions. On the plays where NU did not convert, they were sacked, had three incompletions, and two runs for zero or negative yardage.
Third and Short: Not that third-and-short looked much better; the Cats converted just 2-of-6 in that category, with four incompletions in that situation, even after the Cats looked virtually unstoppable passing the ball on third down earlier in the year.
Placekicking: Just a week after going a perfect 4-of-4 on field goals and with the special teams having a great showing, one of Stefan Demos's field goal attempts was blocked and an extra point attempt snap was mishandled. Things can't go perfect every time, but leaving four points on the field won't get NU wins against stiffer competition.
Containing Running QBs: Although NU kept Miami QB Zac Dysert pretty well contained through the air (completion percentage under 50, three interceptions, seven sacks), he did hurt NU with his legs, averaging over 5.9 yards per carry after taking out his sacks.
NU did a great job in coverage and got good pressure in the backfield, but he had wide running lanes once the pressure got near him and could take off. In fact, he ran five times on 3rd-and-long; thankfully, NU allowed him to gain first-down yardage only once in that situation despite his high rushing average.
Attendance: Despite chilly but generally good weather and a ton of promotions, Northwestern only drew 23,085 fans for the game, yielding a four-game cumulative attendance around 80,000 (which many of NU's Big Ten brethren regularly attain on one Saturday).
Yes, it wasn't an attractive opponent, but the situation couldn't have set up much better for NU and Ryan Field still didn't even reach 50 percent of capacity. Guess Cats fans will have to wait until the later afternoon start against Penn State to see the stadium remotely full.
Finishing Drives: Although NU technically went 2-of-2 in the red zone, they left points out on the field on other occasions. There was Kafka's interception thrown from the Miami 27 yard line, caught at the one. There was NU giving the ball over on downs when they could not convert fourth-and-short from the Miami 31.
There was Demos's blocked field goal try from the 23. And there were three other meaningful drives into RedHawks territory where Northwestern had to punt. Those kind of missed opportunities will come back to hurt NU in the second half of the season if something doesn't turn around.
Injuries: The Cats played the whole game without DE Corey Wootton (although he was in pads on the sideline), and most of the game without S Brendan Smith (apparent hand injury) and still had a very solid day on the defensive side of the football.
Linebackers Bryce McNaul and Ben Johnson, as well as cornerback Justan Vaughn didn't even dress, meaning that with a lot of depth out on the D, the Cats still put together one of their best performances of the year.
It's hard to believe, but the first half of the 2009 football regular season is now over for Northwestern, and the Cats now face a much tougher slate in the second half starting next week with a trip to face Michigan State.
After questioning the expectation-laden defense and being surprised by the up and coming offense during the earlier portion of the season, those roles have now seemingly been reversed, with the D living up to high expectations over the last two games and the offense coming up short more often than not.
The second half of the year will be an interesting one, at the very least, with NU capable of winning many games, but also capable of losing most of them. It will be a hard fight to obtain a bowl berth (likely requiring seven wins), and it will test the resolve of this 2009 football team.
First up is a tough MSU team who is riding a two-game winning streak of their own, and NU will be tough pressed to extend their two-game winning streak in East Lansing.